Farming is always a gamble, but this year could be more of a gamble than usual, with unknown odds and a lot at stake.
So far only about five to 10 percent of the corn crop has been planted in the area, according to Terry Schmidt, regional agronomy manager for the agricultural service company CHS Inc.
"People were waiting for moisture," Schmidt said. "Next week if it's warm, get off the road, they're coming."
Photo by Steve Browne
Green Valley farmer Harold Dieken hopes to plant his corn crop Monday after predicted weekend rain.
Harold Dieken farms outside of Green Valley and plans to put his corn in after the weekend rain.
"I'm hoping to plant Monday," Dieken said on Friday, "depending on the weather we get tomorrow. We've had one inch total rainfall this spring. The soil was warmer before but hopefully by Monday it'll be up to 55 degrees. If the soil conditions are cold and damp, it creates the possibility the seed will lay in the ground and rot instead of germinating."
But according to Schmidt, though recent rains have moistened the top layer of soil, last year's drought drew down the moisture reserves in the soil. Drainage tiles in the area have not been running at all, and farmers who've taken advantage of the dry soil to lay tile report the soil is dust-dry down to 4 or 5 feet.
"We've probably got the top six inches moist now," Schmidt said, "but we've got a long way to go to fill up."
Getting the corn crop into the ground is a matter of timing right now, according to Shannon Ernst, soil conservationist with the National Resource Conservation Service.
"Thank God we've gotten the rain, it's definitely helping, though we could probably use a little more," Ernst said. "But right now, until we get the seed in the ground, we can wait."
Ernst said what's needed is one warm day of sunshine to dry the top layer of soil before planting around the University of Minnesota's recommended date of April 20.
"We don't want the implements in the field when it's wet because of compaction and smearing of soil," Ernst said, "but overall we need a couple more inches to get a good start."
Working for the farmers is the fact that local soils have good water holding capacity, so any rainfall tends to stay in the soil, Ernst said.
"It's in the rooting zone," Ernst said. "So as long as we have the surface zone moist it should be OK."
However, as corn grows in the fields, the root systems follow the moisture as it grows. If the moisture is only on the surface, the result is a mass of thick but shallow roots, leaving the corn stalks vulnerable to drought and wind damage, according to Schmidt.
"Last year we had a decent crop because we had reserves in the soil," Schmidt said. "We don't have that this year. Now that we have no reserves in the bank, we're going to have to have some very timely rains."
And, there is very little margin for failure this year. Because of increased corn acres and last year's drought in the Midwest resulting in low germination rates, there is little seed left for a second planting in case of an untimely frost or low soil moisture.
"The amount of seed we have to get to the first corn planting is beg, borrow, or steal," said Dave Timmerman, an agronomist with Hefty Seed Company. "Some companies have a little reserve, but it'll be hard to come by and it may not be the hybrid number or quantity they're looking for - but it's corn."
And, Timmerman said, since soil preparation in terms of fertilizer and soil chemistry is pretty specific to corn, making it unlikely farmers could switch to either beans or even another grain. The only real option would be sorghum, for which there is essentially no local market.